Sunday, October 24, 2010

Into South Africa - Safari

If there was one part of the trip that I had zero expectations about it was the safari, in fact I was almost sure it was going to be disappointing.  I am not sure if it would have mattered where my expectations were prior to coming to Pondoro Game Lodge for our 3 night 4 day safari because I left absolutely blown away by the experience.  As thrilling as it was to be at the World Cup, dive with great whites and explore the Cape, nothing came close to the experience of the safari.

Pondoro Game Lodge was exactly how I would do a safari again.  Beautiful, luxurious (by safari standards) thatched huts sitting down on the banks of the Olifanst River.  The meals were some of the best we had during our entire trip and beyond plentiful and frequent (wake up snack, morning snack in the bush, breakfast, lunch, evening drinks and snack in the bush, 3 course dinner).  In addition to the outstanding food Pondoro boasts an award winning wine lists and on site serenity spa.

Pondoro's owners are on site at all time (apparently a rarity at safari lodges today).  The husband is one of the two rangers and the wife oversees the lodge and kitchen.  I cannot stress to you how amazing her food is.  From the lamb shank to the Springbok pot pie everything was outstanding.

I doubt words or pictures will do justice to the experiences and mental images captured during my safari (amazing sunsets, giraffes gliding through the bush, watching lion's hunt and attack zebra and then having them come within arms length of our vehicle and the list goes on...), but I want to share a few of my favorite pictures out of the thousands we took.  Enjoy!

Young Impala males getting in some practice
Mom and baby having a snack together
The fearsome rhino
Sunrise in the bush
Our afternoon visitors at lunch
These guys were fearless and not afraid to come to the table and take what they wanted

Wild E. Beast
2 for 1

Celebrating our first lion sighting
Coacktails at sunset in the bush
Cold early morning drive
Super model
Mom lion nuzzling daughter
 Pregnant zebra
 Male Impala
 2 male and 2 female lions getting ready for bed
 ...and asleep
Literally within petting distance (mom leading daughter)
Momma lion
Her daughter
Taking it all in 
Such amazing lines and details on the elephant

Nature - Part 1
Nature - Part 2
Nature - Part 3

 Mom and daughter resting after the hunt
 where are your stilettos?
 Male Impala
Is that a wig or what?!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Into South Africa - The Cape

So many times prior to leaving for South Africa I heard that Cape Town was a blend of San Francisco and Sydney.  I can't attest to Sydney as I haven't been (going soon though!), but after having lived in the Bay Area for 10 years with the last 2 in San Francisco I can say those comparisons weren't too far off.

Cape Town and its surrounding landscape offer so many wonderful outdoor activities, some amazing wine lands, breathtaking views against a magnificent city bordered by the ocean and the ever present Table Mountain, not to mention Cape Point, world class surfing and shark diving.

After the hectic travel to get to the US/Ghana game we finally were able to settle in to our lovely apartment at Mouille Point Apartments.  We were surrounded with striking sites as our backyard was a golf course, the only real estate separating us from Cape Town Stadium, and our front yard was the Atlantic Ocean.  With just a quick walk to the V&A Waterfront and De Waterkant we were in prime location to take in Cape Town.

Ensuring we started the trip with a bang, we rented a car and set off to Simon's Town, a quick 40 minutes drive down the coast line to dive with some Great Whites off of False Bay.  We signed on for an afternoon trip with African Shark Eco Charters and headed out to Seal Island for a date with some Great Whites.  After a quick boat ride out to the island, a little chum in the water, we got to see our first Great White in the flesh.  The size and grace of these creatures are a site to behold.  One of the things that surprised me most was how peaceful and harmless they looked gracefully swimming by our boat.

As the cage was lowered my heart started racing, but after a few groups went in (2 at a time in the cage) I was feeling confident and ready to get in and spend time in the water with these big boys.  After getting suited up and briefed on safety, I strapped on my wetsuit and weight belt and hopped in the cage.  Initially, I had a tough time breathing through the regulator and getting in a comfortable position in the cage as the ocean's movement rocked us back and forth the entire 30 minutes we were underwater.
After getting settled into the cage, and having a momentary freak out that I had nothing protecting my backside, I came face to face with the Great White.  It was a moment filled with so little fear I was really surprised.  Again, the grace and ease with which these wondrous creatures moved through the water was a site to behold.  They seem like an animal at such peace in its environment.  As we stayed down in the cage we were treated to a few more Great Whites, two circling around our cage at once.  The most striking trait of the Great White when you are face to face with them is their eyes.  The two black eyes looking at you head on leave no doubt this is not an animal to be tempted or played with.
After coming back up and seeing more Great Whites come up to the boat, we were treated to seeing a few Great Whites pop their head out of the water going after the seal cutout with their mouth open and razor sharp teeth ready to kill.  The razor sharp teeth coupled with their black eyes was such a sight to behold, and one that will be forever ingrained in my memory.  We were lucky enough to snap a few great action shots.
After the thrill of shark diving, something you need to do more than once in your life, we took the next day to relax a bit and explore wine country.  We booked through Redwood Tours, who specialize in personalized wine tours catered to small groups.  We had a wonderful guide for the day in Keith van der Schyff.  After doing some homework on wineries I sent Keith 5 wineries we want to hit up during our day.  After he initially questioned my itinerary, he agreed to let us go to one of my wineries of choice and then one of his.  Let's just say after that exercise we were on Keith's agenda for the remainder of the day.

We began the day at Fairview Wines in the Paarl region, which also produce their own cheese on site.  For just 25 Rand (about $3) we were given 7 pours of wine and a cheese tasting of about 10 different cheeses - a little more reasonable than Napa!  The wine was so-so and Keith took us over to Kanonkop in the Stellenbosch region, the second winery to ever produce the famed Pinotage South Africa is so well known for.  We were treated to five fantastic wines (only 10 Rand!) that included the Paul Sauer, a tasty Kadette and the real winner, their Pinotage.  I couldn't resist picking up a couple of the Paul Sauer bottles as well as the Pinotage, luckily Kanonkop also sold travel safe 6-packs which joined us on our travels the rest of the way.
From there we hit up L'Avenir where I felt the Cab Franc was the real winner.  Next, Keith took us to Rustenberg Winery (above), which was set against a beautiful backdrop of the mountains of Stellenbosch.  From there we were treated to an amazing lunch at Guardian Peak (view below), a part of Ernie Els Wines.   In Napa, Auberge de Soleil is widely known to have some of the most breath taking views in Napa.  Think of Guardian Peak as the Auberge de Soleil of Stellnbosch, except Guardian Peak is also a winery.  Wading through the menu was the toughest task of the entire afternoon, but after settling on stuffed quail breast and the roasted apple and raisin pork belly (below) we settled in for an amazing afternoon set against the striking landscape that is the backyard of Guardian Peaks.  All of the food comes with a recommended pairing of Guardian Peak wines, and I really enjoyed the Guradian Peak SMG that was paired with both of my dishes.
Our late lunch at Guardian Peak had to be the best way to wrap up a wonderful day of wine tasting in a beautiful region.  Keith was kind enough to take us on a quick tour of Stellenbosch after lunch.  He even stopped off in Stellenbosch and bought us an amazing assortment of chocolate truffles that became my early morning snack for the next week back in Cape Town.  During the trip we paid for not a single tasting outside of lunch and drinks at Guardian Peak.  And as we were dropped back of at Mouille Point, Keith charged us around 600 Rand for the entire day.  That was a days worth of transportation, an amazing and knowledgeable tour guide and wine tastings the tally came to about $80/person.  Kanonkop and Rustenberg are two wineries you can't miss and I can't imagine going back and not having lunch at Guardian Peak.

After watching Germany put a spanking on Argentina and spending a few days in Cape Town, we took an early morning boat ride from the V&A Waterfront to explore Robben Island - on July 4th nonetheless.  I have conflicting feelings about this trip because it was so so touristy from the moment you step on the overcrowded boat, but at the same time it was so amazing to set your eyes on the limestone quarry where Mandela and his fellow political prisoners literally slaved away while breaking up limestone.  His jail cell allows so many memories to rush through your body, seeing that cell and looking in Mandela's eyes today you get a sense that you can feel his strength and fortitude.

We were lucky enough to have an ex-political prisoner give us a tour of the jail and its surroundings.  You could hear such great strength and pride in his voice as he spoke about his experience and what daily routines were like for the inmates.  The views looking back at Cape Town were gorgeous, but you couldn't help but think about the political prisoners looking at something so breathtaking while enduring massive hardships, isolation and intense physical labor.  I'm really glad I went, but probably wouldn't go twice.

The next day we were faced with perhaps the worst weather of the trip, which wasn't all the bad other than the fact that we were planning to head to Cape Point where the weather would have prevented us from seeing much if anything of The Cape.  So we took the day to explore the Constantia wine region, just 20 miles south of Cape Town.  The winelands area is much smaller with only 5 vineyards, making it a much more manageable day.

Our first stop was at Steenberg, a newer modern winery with a golf course, spa, restaurant and  overnight accommodations.  Sav Blanc and Semillion were the focus and outside of their beautiful grounds I didn't care too much for their wine offerings across the board.  Next, we swung by Constantia Uitsig which had a quaint country feel with not a ton to see, but what we didn't know was that nestled next to the tasting room was an award winning restaurant that we needed to book well in advance for.  The wine was a bit better and I was absolutely blown away by their sparkling, I really regret not bringing a bottle or two back to the States.

Our next stop was at Buitenverwachting, meaning "Beyond Expectations".  While I have vivid memories of so many things during my trip, the sights at Buitenverwachting will not be one escaping my memory for years, apparently parts of Blood Diamond were filmed there.

Our final stop of the day ended with the epic sweet wine, Vin de Constance, that "helped Napoleon ease the misery of exile and was recommended by Jane Austen for a broken heart" in Sense and Sensablity.  The wine was so delicious and unique to its own form.  Had I not been gobbling up bottles from other wineries I certainly would have returned with more than two bottles.

The following day the weather cleared up nicely and we decided to make a full day of it with the Netherlands-Uruguay semi finals that night and a trip down to Cape Point during the day.  Looking back I wish we had taken an entire day to hike around the cape and explore all of the breathtaking sights it has to offer.  The few hours we spent there were all amazing, I just wanted to have my feet on that ground and my eyes looking out across the horizon for a few more hours.  For our trip down we drove on the east side of the peninsula past Simon's Town (where we went shark diving).  On the way back we came up the west side and had a breathtaking drive up Chapman's Peak and down into Hout Bay, I highly recommended doing the same route if you head down.

The toughest day of the trip followed after the Netherlands walked away victorious over Uruguay 3-2 and a night of partying with the Orange fans ensued. We drove two hours north of Cape Town to Die Strandloper at Langebaan where we threw down on a 4 hour 10 course meal, with all of the fish coming directly out of the bay we sat on.  Can't say I would do this twice, but it certainly was worth the experience.

We wrapped up our stay in Cape Town with a delicious meal at Aubergine.  It was the perfect way to end the trip and by far the best meal of the trip we had experienced thus far.  It was a five star meal, with fantastic service for a completely reasonable price, just like everything in Cape Town except for the World Cup gear.  The next day we headed off for the home run of the trip, Safari!

Safari post and a shit ton of pictures to come shortly...